Union Interview: David Greenwood and Sue Cox

Morwenna Jones 25 April 2014

David Greenwood is Chairman of Stop Church Child Abuse UK.  In his work as a solicitor he has represented many victims of child abuse and has pursued claims against the Catholic Church.  He spoke in opposition of the motion ‘This House believes that the Catholic Church is a force for good’. 

Sue Cox is a member of Survivors’ Voice and is a survivor of rape by a member of the clergy.  She now fights for more support for victims and made the first speech at the “Protest the Pope” rally in 2010.  She is a grandmother and has six children.

So, firstly, how do you both feel about the outcome of the debate?

DG: The outcome is neither here nor there.  We’re here for serious business, to make the point and to raise awareness of the issues and the enormous harm that’s being done by the church and the systematic way in which it’s not dealt with. 

SC: I’m delighted; we’re really keen that people understand and hear the reality of it, not just what’s written in the papers and statistics that others spout.  These are real people and I honestly tell you that if you saw the people that we see on a daily basis, if you listen to that stuff, if you saw the documentations, the damaged lives, the deaths, the suicides, then people would tear those churches down brick by brick. It’s the environment that’s the problem, not the individual perpetrators.

Can you expand upon that, a lot of people say ‘there are just some bad people’ but you think it’s actually the institution itself?

SC: It’s a mistake.  I would argue that it’s actually the narcissistic environment that allows the bad apples to flourish unguarded and protected.  The only way that we’re ever going to be able to talk about this is to actually give personal information and that’s very hard but otherwise you are subjected to people who know little about it and who just spout statistics.

Is this what made you speak up about your experiences and get involved in victim support?

SC:  Not exactly, I didn’t speak up for many years. I was nearly sixty before I spoke about it properly because there’s a vast amount of shame and guilt attached to this.

A priest raped me from when I was ten until I was thirteen in a Catholic household.  My mother caught him, raping me, and did nothing about it because she was so indoctrinated by the church that the church’s image was far greater than my mental and emotional health.

I became an alcoholic, I was a drug addict, I had an eating disorder, I was a serious self-harmer, I was suicidal until I was about thirty and it was then that I started to recover.  I thought I was the only one, that’s the other thing, I thought I was the only survivor of these people in the entire world. 

What happened was that I work in addiction and I was lucky enough to win an award for my contributions to the field of addiction treatment.  There was a lot of stuff in the paper at the time that coincided with the Pope’s visit in 2010 and it just occurred to me that I couldn’t hide anymore, I couldn’t wait for other people to come out and I’d have to stand up for myself. 

It really was a combination of events but it took a long, long time before I was at the point when I was able to speak publicly about it. 

What’s been your biggest achievement apart from obviously speaking out? 

SC: Oh boy!  You know, all my life I felt like I was an alien.  The Catholic Church in its abuse of children created a sort of subculture of human beings, like me, who don’t quite belong anywhere.  I didn’t belong in the Church but I couldn’t get out of it, I didn’t belong in my family because I wasn’t supported there.  I was thirteen, I was an emotional and physical wreck, my education was disturbed and I didn’t get back into education until I was forty. 

So, recovery is my biggest passion and I’m ever more and more proud of the connections we’ve made with other survivors throughout the world and the fact that we’re able to support them and empower them.  It’s my passion.

And has this problem with institutions put you off religion entirely?

DG: Neither of us are religious.  It’s not an issue for me as such, I don’t have a problem with religion.  If people want to find religion and believe then that’s great but I just don’t want the organisation to abuse children.

Can the Catholic church change?

DG:  No.  It’s more concerned about itself and self-preservation than it is about moral decisions and about protecting the people who come to it for help.  You must remember, whilst there are a lot of people who are just devout Catholics who are fairly well off, there’s an enormous amount of the Catholic population who go to church because they are poor and in need of some sort of spiritual direction, they go to the church because they need something in their lives and that’s when they’re at their most vulnerable. 

But currently, [the church] is in a position where it doubts the evidence of the UN and it’s being criticised openly.  It would need to change all its systems and all the people who have been responsible and in an adequate way- it just can’t.

Sue, you’ve been nodding in agreement.  What improvements should the Catholic church make?

SC: Well to start with, I don’t think the church should be policing itself, nor should it be responsible for saying what compensation or what healing anybody should have.  They have demonstrated time after time after time their inability and their unwillingness to do that, so my feeling is that it should be taken out of the church’s hands by people like the International Criminal Court, Human Rights, the UN Rights of the Child.  We’re even putting in a submission to the Committee against Torture.

Why that Committee?

SC: Because childhood sexual abuse is torture.  It’s been well documented scientifically that clergy abuse causes permanent brain damage, it causes damage to the immune system, damage to the metabolic system and shortens lifespans.  We’re talking about a serious crime against humanity, not a fumble behind the bike sheds.

I also represent some of our [Survivors Voice] members who are deaf and speech impaired people from Verona in Italy.  There are nearly two hundred of them, all deaf and dumb, all through being systematically sexually abused by the Priests that were looking after them and this is still happening in Verona. 

And how do you feel about that? It’s hard for anyone to really imagine.

SC:It is power abuse and that’s just awful.  You can imagine instead how the first time I went to Rome and met these people, I met an elderly gentleman in his sixties with tears streaming down his face.  He could only use sign language because he had no other language and he was having to explain how he was raped by several priests.  Now I defy anybody to watch and witness that and not be angry about a church that allows it to happen. 

But it did happen, this is documented, there are pages that prove this but he still hasn’t got justice. 

So David, why did you decide to specialise in child abuse law? 

DG: When you’ve spent so much time in rooms with men in their fifties and their forties in tears explaining to you what happened to them, you realise that the system is not good.  It isn’t built or designed to look after the rights of these people and that’s really something that has to change and I’m motivated to find change in it.  I’ll try and push the boundaries as far as I can with the system but I’m advocating radical change to the system.

You spoke about having your education denied you for a long time, how do you feel about being here in Cambridge? 

SC: On a personal note, I have to speak about students.  My work has opened my eyes to an awful lot of atheist and humanist students who are so compassionate.  We went to Verona to march with the deaf people and some UK students we knew came with us.  What I’ve been most privileged to do is be part of that organisation and students. 

I’ve never had a chance of that; it’s one of my biggest regrets.  My children have been to university and now, on a different level, I’m able to address the balance because of like-minded, thoughtful human beings at universities.  It’s you students who I believe will change the world someday.